Epic play

The back-to-roots movement in theatre has directors turning to myths for inspiration, reports Chaman Ahuja

Scene from Sri Ram Bijoy by Sankaradeva.
Scene from Sri Ram Bijoy by Sankaradeva. There have been as many as 10 plays based on the Mahabharata and Ramayana

"Another Mahabharata play? My goodness, is this Bharat Rang Mahotsava or Mahabharata Rang Mahotsava?" Thus cribbed a fellow critic—and he had a reason, too: Bharangam VII had as many as 10 plays based on the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Did this popularity of the twin epics signify our love for the glory that was Ind? Not exactly, because reinterpreting myths in the light of one’s own experiences has been the way of every culture. Witness, the innumerable plays based on the Greek myths by the ancient Greeks, the classical and modern Europeans, even the contemporary Americans. That, in fact, is the beauty of a myth. Although everybody knows that a myth is a fictitious story, it is the most widely believed thing because its core comprises a universal experience, an eternal truth. The fact that it is neither time-specific nor space-specific lends it the kaleidoscopic power of yielding myriad patterns.

During the back-to-roots movement in search of a new identity, Indian theatre had turned to myths, too, the big idea was to so interpret them as to impregnate them with modern sensibility, modern outlook, modern themes, modern forms. That the trend continues was confirmed by "epic" plays from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bombay, Guwahati, Bhopal and Udaipur. Besides India-wide sway, this influx pointed to inter-regional interaction: a Hindi play (Madhavi) in Malayalam, Tagore’s Chitra in Kannada, a Sanskrit play in Hindi (Madhyam Vyayog) from Bombay, fusion of Bhasa and Bharati in Tamil (Andhi Veli). Anyway, in the productions of these plays, one could trace several dramatic and theatrical trends: making an old myth relevant through modernist interpretation (as in Dehantar), lacing myths with new thematic strands (Madhavi; Andha Yug), evolving new theatre idiom for old classics (Madhyam Vyayog), reorienting mythical characters independently (Chhayamukhi), using myth as mirror unto real life (Padakulam), giving a myth some interesting twist (Maya Sita Prasang), reviving traditional forms (Sri Ram Bijoy).

Apropos the Mahabharata, we could start with two Yayati plays. Dehantar sees Yayati’s borrowing of his son’s youth from the mother’s angle—her psychological resistance, because the sex with the husband could mean sex with the son whose youth he carries. In Madhavi, Yayati gifts away his daughter to a young man who, to pay off his dakshina, lets her sleep with two kings and the guru—a treatment that revolts her as if she were a bartering instrument. When she walks out on these men, one recalls Ibsenian feminism.

Madhyam Vyayog, Bhasa’s play, is about Bhima’s meeting Ghatotkacha, his son from Hidimba; but the director injected Dalit and feminist slants by highlighting the politics of power (Arya vs Anarya) and the gender politics (Purush vs Stree). In Chhayamukhi, Bhima kills Keechaka but the action revolves round a magic mirror in which one sees not one’s own reflection but the image of the person one wants to see. Lost by Bhima, the mirror reaches Keechaka whose narcissistic conduct yields hilarious action. Chitra, dealing with an ugly warrior-queen’s love for Arjuna, yoked together Tagore’s poetry, traditional as well as modern styles of acting and music, and choreographic movements so characteristic of Kannada theatre.

Duryodhana’s death was the theme of three plays. Accustomed to the slow pace of Andha Yug, one felt amused by the hectic pace of its production by Children’s Theatre Academy, Bhopal— characters scurried around like people running aimlessly in a city on fire. Then came the realisation of a method behind the madness: the director did want to create a panicky tenor for the vanquished Kauravas. Since Andhi Veli fused Urubhangam and Andha Yug, the action climaxed in two curses — Krishna’s for Ashwatthama and Gandhari’s for Krishna. The power of the play lay in its minimalism — depending primarily on lighting and delivery. The third Duryodhana play also came from Tamil Nadu — from Muthuswamy’s Koothu-p-pattarai. Titled Padakulam, here was the story of a feud between two brothers in a locality littered with Draupadi temples. When one of the brothers who normally plays Duryodhana in the Draupadi rituals behaves like Duryodhana in the dispute, the play tends to interweave life and myth.

Of the Ramayana-plays, Maya Sita Prasang, based on Shaktibhadra’s Aashcharya Choodamani, gave an interesting twist that brought Sita’s abduction very close to elopement. Because of the maya created by Shoorpanakha’s magic ring, Ravana is so transformed into Rama that Sita goes out with him; Rama himself is duped into treating Shoorpanakha as Sita until the fall of the ring undoes the maya. The aesthetic maya inhered the coalescing of Koodyiattam, classical tradition of presentation, and modern technique of freezing the action. Sri Ram Bijoy from Guwahati — presenting Rama’s multiple victories over Taraka, the contestants in Swayamara, and Parasurama— was Sankaradeva’s own text in Sanskrit Brijwali, and in his own form, Ankia Naat (Bhaona). However, since it was being presented not in Naamghar (for the gods) but on a proscenium stage, there was due addition of lighting and design which shifted the focus from bhakti-rasa to drishya-kavya .